Across cinema’s long lineage of stories about young women attempting to shake parental control and seize their own destinies, few protagonists have needed to escape quite as viscerally as Ada, the unbearably put-upon heroine of Russian director Kira Kovalenko’s imposing sophomore feature “Unclenching the Fists.” In poor health and kept under literal lock and key by her widowed, loveless father, she fears time is running out for her to make a run for it — though where on earth to go, in a desolate corner of the North Caucasus where the patriarchy threatens to ensnare her in other ways, is the question giving added urgency to this unusual, stonily moving coming-of-ager.
A tough commercial proposition any way you slice it, “Unclenching the Fists” nonetheless had a dream debut at July’s Cannes Film Festival, where it scored both a multi-territory distribution deal (including North America) with arthouse streamer Mubi and the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section. It’s not hard to see what may have drawn jury president Andrea Arnold to Kovalenko’s film — which, not unlike Arnold’s masterpiece “Fish Tank,” steers a young, release-seeking female protagonist with a restless mobile camera and a keen eye for light and beauty amid urban rubble.
Kovalenko’s lyricism is of an especially rough, unprettified school, however, shaped by her experiences of growing up in Russia’s remote Kabardino-Balkaria Republic — not all that far from Ada’s home in Mizur, a dusty-brown, treeless mining town in North Ossetia. Like “Beanpole” prodigy Kantemir Balagov, Kovalenko is a graduate of a pioneering North Caucasus filmmaking workshop headed by Aleksandr Sokurov, which has yielded work meshing a vivid regional sensibility with the scale and heft of more mainstream Russian art film. (Producer Alexander Rodnyansky, who also shepherded “Beanpole” and the work of Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a vital presence on “Fists.”)
Even as Kovalenko’s filmmaking shares its severe, rigorous formalism with these peers and collaborators, however, its frank, unfiltered feminist perspective distinguishes it from their output — as her camera cuts a kinetic, untidy path through a society of variously oppressive menfolk. Ada (played with open, unflinching integrity by drama student Milana Aguzarova) lives her life effectively boxed in by four of them, though her sickly father (Alik Karaev) exerts the most hostile authority of the lot. Hiding her passport and denying her her own key to their bleak apartment, he allows her out only to work at a local convenience store and forbids her from seeing other men in particular: Any vanities that might conceivably attract them, be it long hair or perfume, are also vetoed.
That’s not the worst of it. She’s not even permitted to go to hospital for a life-enhancing operation to repair the damage done by a traumatizing childhood injury, and is thus physically and mentally ailing under his watch. Her younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov), meanwhile, smothers her with neediness, frequently sharing her bed and addressing her as “mom”. Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), the simple-minded local boy with whom she’s begun a furtive flirtation at work, is scarcely any more mature or supportive. A grasping sexual encounter between them, meanwhile, may rank among the most viscerally awkward deflowering scenes in cinema history. “I’m not very good at it yet,” he mumbles, an honest understatement.
She’s counting on her comparatively stable older brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who escaped the family prison to find a job in neighboring town Rostov, to help her flee, though his sympathy runs hot and cold. “You smell like Dad,” she notes at one point, either warily or tenderly; in this dysfunctionally close family, multiple roles have merged. Though the ensemble mixes trained actors (Aguzarova and Karaev) with local non-professionals (notably the three younger male principals), the film achieves a consistent sense of community and identity between them. A frenzied vocal tone and wild, untethered physicality connects all the performances, with every character seemingly eager to burst out of their own body, and by extension, the life in which it’s stranded.
The film’s script occasionally draws an over-emphatic red line under its thematic and psychological complexities: “Well, at least I can speak now,” Ada crows when her father’s illness renders him mute. But there’s more delicately revealing nuance in cinematographer Pavel Fomintsev’s dynamic widescreen compositions, which frequently capture Ada and the men in her life in whirling, tactile group confrontations — sometimes like a dance, sometimes an outright brawl — as they literally tussle and wrestle for physical control of her body. Resisting the impulse toward shooting Ada’s glum surroundings in murky, tone-on-tone grays, Fomintsev and Kovalenko instead opt for a stylized, high-contrast palette of bleached flesh tones punctuated with Ada’s lurid attempts to bring color into her world. Among the film’s many vivid images, it’s the glaring violet of her winter jacket that lingers, or the plasticky jewel tone of a rearview mirror ornament, dangling before a barren road to nowhere.